Budgeting reveals a lot about a company's priorities. Budget growth in one area means it has taken on more significance with the board or the chief executive officer. The recent growth of public affairs or corporate communications budgets in the healthcare industry clearly shows that both providers and payers place a higher priority on talking to their constituencies.
A decade ago, for most hospitals, communications meant one person who fielded questions from the media about a high-profile patient or two. Now hospitals look far more like consumer product companies with full departments, sophisticated communications strategies and sizable staffs. The intense competition of the past decade is causing providers to talk louder and more persuasively.
Not surprisingly, when all this talk reaches a certain level, the consumer tunes out. So unless organizations really listen as well, their dollars have been wasted. Listening involves finding out what's important to customers and stakeholders, where they get information, what they think about you and the competition, and how customers make decisions. The more listening you do, the more successful and profitable you will become.
A lesson in listening.Consider Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Hampshire. Just over a year ago, the insurer had lost 3,000 subscribers to the competition, was under scrutiny by "60 Minutes" over its financial health, and was facing the biggest period of change in its 50-year history. Many organizations might have responded by talking more-maybe launching an advertising campaign or beefing up PR. But the company distinguished itself when executives decided it wasn't time to talk more. Instead, it was time to listen.
The Blues plan's vice president of communications knew he was charting new territory. His firm was no longer an insurance company but was in fact a healthcare company. The challenge was how to position the company in a highly competitive and rapidly changing environment.
Seeking answers.His first step was to commission a communications audit to answer some key questions: Who are the real audiences? What are they seeing? What's important to them? What do they need to make decisions? What do they think about the company? What does the company want them to think? In pursuit of answers The Delahaye Group conducted two separate studies.
The first study was a press coverage analysis of 100 articles about the Blues plan and its major competitor gathered from local and national publications. A member of the Blues' target audience (a New Hampshire resident shopping for health insurance) analyzed the articles for tone (did the article leave the reader feeling more or less likely to do business with the Blues?), for informational content and for how prominently the company was mentioned.
The second round of research called for 250 anonymous direct telephone interviews with two key constituencies: plan subscribers and business decisionmakers-owners of small and medium-sized businesses who were primarily responsible for making health insurance purchasing choices.
The study helped determine what issues were hot and how the Blues were portrayed by the media relative to those issues. The Blues learned that a typical New Hampshire reader was seeing a lot of financial news about the insurer and very little coverage of actual benefits plans. Meanwhile, coverage of the competition was oriented toward choosing a health insurance company, available benefit options and lowering corporate healthcare costs.
The next step was to narrow the focus from the broad universe of marketplace messages to ones valued by the Blues' audiences. Business decisionmakers rated the importance of more than a dozen aspects of health insurance individually and picked the two most important. Researchers found that those surveyed foremost wanted a health insurance company that was easy to deal with. Cost factors ranked second, and the ability to choose physicians ranked third. In other words, from another perspective, customers truly desired a plan that would listen.
Next, researchers needed to identify how customers made those decisions. The Blues learned that first and foremost respondents want to know all the details of their benefits. Other key responses: "A health insurance plan should focus on keeping people healthy, not just taking care of you when you're sick," and "Knowing my employees and myself are included no matter what happens is a very important part of health insurance."
A different message.The Blues had to enter the equation to find out how these constituencies ranked the company on various issues. It became obvious that the Blues' old messages were not reaching people. It also was apparent the plan did not stack up to the competition very well primarily because respondents didn't think the company was an easy organization to do business with-what customers already said was their most important issue.
The answer wasn't to just change messages. The answer was to fix the company. The competitive analysis revealed clear opportunities in several areas. The first was that customer-service problems had to be solved before the messages changed. Then the communications experts could highlight the competitive advantages of being insured by the Blues.
As this comprehensive example shows, it pays to listen. That's valid regardless of your role in the healthcare system. By listening to the media (through a monthly press audit), a major pharmaceutical manufacturer has successfully countered competitive moves against its products. Through a competitive benchmark study, a large California hospital is now "listening" to its image in the local market to help gain market share. And insurers across the country are using volumes of data they've gathered on purchasers over the years to better tune their services to meet customers' needs.
At the New Hampshire Blues a year later, the company is reaping the rewards of listening. Sales of its newest product have far exceeded expectations, subscribers are returning in record numbers, profits are up, as is morale. In the words of the Blues' CEO, "It's a whole new company."